For most, the Eighties are not regarded as the decade of good taste. Over-the-top fashion was punctuated by big hair, mask-like maquillage and shoulder pads more suited to an American football player.
Thankfully one band stood out as a beacon of impeccable cool and understated reserve and helped me negotiate my rather awkward expressions of character throughout my teenage years. New Order’s discreet non-image conversely singled them out amidst the outrageous trappings of many of their electronic, new wave and post-punk contemporaries and has most likely help foster their longer shelf life.
Their mystique was partly due to their Joy Division beginnings shockingly and abruptly ended when singer Ian Curtis took his own life. Joy Division ended with Curtis and New Order rose from the ashes but their early singles and debut album were more of a continuation of what they had been. They needed a new musical direction and were searching for a new sound and the underground clubs of lower Manhattan were to provide the inspiration.
At the Mudd Club, Danceteria and The Paradise Garage, New Order heard an eclectic dance mix that included Klein & MBO electro, Giorgio Moroder Euro-disco, Sylvester Hi-NRG and even post-punk/rock-funk courtesy of The Clash (I remember ecstatically dancing to ‘Magnificent Dance’ on a predominantly Black and Latino dance floor at the Lower East Side afterhours party The Choice – the Clash tune was a true NYC underground classic). This energy and sheer physicality was the injection New Order needed and the results can be heard on their ensuing singles, most significantly ‘Blue Monday’.
Although the following album, ‘Power Corruption and Lies’, was New Order’s second long player, it’s almost like their debut and it’s the album’s opener, ‘Age of Consent’, that fully realises their new musical confidence and regained artistic foothold.
Most of the band members were not known for their virtuosic playing but on this song they all have their special moments and the rhythm section deserves special mention. Drummer Stephen Morris plays his kit like a Linn Drum machine, mechanistic, metronomic and relentless. His steady pattern emulates post-disco rhythms with driving hi-hats and a hard kick and snare. His quirky and firing floor tom fills toward the end of the song ensure New Order have not strayed too far from their post-punk inception.
Peter Hook’s bass is mostly a repetitive loop akin to those of early house music but strangely, listening today, the register and melody of the bass line sounds similar to those on R.E.M.’s ‘Murmur” released the preceding month. Purely coincidence but again another perfect meld of dance and indie sensibilities. Gillian Gilbert’s low-pitched pads underlying the song add a somewhat sinister, dark, waving texture and are oddly reminiscent of Joy Division even though she was the only member to have not played in that early incarnation. Her gorgeous synth countermelody between verses and leading out the track that makes the song truly take off.
Bernard Sumner was a reluctant front man and claimed he was more of an instrumentalist than a singer. On their early recordings he often sounded that way, but with “Age of Consent” there is a newfound confidence and Sumner sounds convincing, like he really means whatever it is he is trying to say. He sounds great and his melody has the right hooks and his lyrics actually do make a bit of sense.
All of the somewhat simple elements of ‘Age of Consent’ fit together perfectly and the greater whole of this song represents the complete transformation of the band.
‘Power Corruption and Lies’ lifted New Order out of the musical shadow of Joy Division and with the album’s new physicality and spirit it hopefully helped ease some of the pain.
Classic Album Sundays will be playing New Order’s Power, Corruption and Lies in full on an audiophile system including Bowers & Wilkins 802 Diamond loudspeakers:
- London: Sunday 5th May 5 – 8pm, Hanbury Arms, 33 Linton Street, N1 7DU
- Boston: Sunday 5th May 5 – 8pm, Meadhall, 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge MA 02142
If you can’t make any of these events, grab a decent copy, turn down the lights and listen in full at home.